One could do a serviceable job of narrating the history of professional anglophone literary criticism of the twentieth century by tracing the critical fortunes of Romantic poetry. T. S. Eliot mostly disdained the Romantics, along with their predecessor Milton, as did many of the New Critics. In each case, the baroque stylings and ironies of the Metaphysicals were a better fit. (There are exceptions—F. R. Leavis had much of interest to say about Wordsworth—but as a quick summary it'll stand.) American deconstruction, in turn, found in the figural ambivalences of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats a means of radicalizing the close reading of the literary-academic establishment from within, even coming close on occasion to proposing a new immanent vision of poetry's apocalyptic historicity, before settling on the textual impasse itself as bracing, if limited, corrective to criticism's liberal humanist temptations.
With the arrival of the new historicism came a further repudiation of Romanticism, this time in the name of a putatively radical politics. For Jerome McGann (1983), the pastoral effusions of Wordsworth and Keats served as mere ideological screens, concealing the various immiserations that defined the industrial revolution in England. The era of what Joseph North (2017) has recently called the “historicist/contextualist paradigm” had arrived; arguably, it is still with us.
There has nonetheless been a renaissance in sophisticated theoretical criticism on the Romantics in the last twenty years or so. In the various writings of Rei Terada, Anne-Lise François, Jacques Khalip, Forest Pyle, and now Anahid Nersessian, earlier polemics and commonplaces in Romantic theory have been either rejected or productively reinvented. If, in an earlier moment, Romantic criticism tended to emphasize either the affirmative (think of M. H. Abrams  on Romantic poetry as lamp rather than mirror, spilling its light within a world thus reenchanted) or the negative (think of Paul de Man  on the irresolvable if constitutive gap between Romantic rhetoric and grammar), this younger group have sought to complicate such dichotomies, no doubt often replacing them with polarities of their own. For some of this latest generation of Romantic critics, the apocalypticism that characterized, say, Geoffrey Hartman's diamantine readings of the Romantics has been retained, even heightened. For others, one finds an intriguing turn to recession, to the barely-there, to the trailing away of things, or, for Nersessian in particular, to Romanticism as a politically consequential poetics of figurative-political failure.
Anahid Nersessian's star has ascended at a pace almost unheard of in our contemporary moment, where ambitious theory is mostly in abeyance, and the sheer glut of publications, to say nothing of our deracinated academic labor market, makes it nigh impossible to gain a hearing beyond one's narrow disciplinary specialism. Nersessian stands out in part because hers is a critical voice that often enough refuses the scholarly commonplaces of our age, not least an adherence to positivist notions of “context” and the “archive.” Of her three monographs to date, The Calamity Form is, I think, the best. In a rather uncritical review for Critical Inquiry's website, Marjorie Levinson (2020) assimilated Nersessian's approach to a variant of Gianni Vattimo's “weak thought.” This risks suggesting that Nersessian's book might bear comparison to those of scholars, Rita Felski (2015) most prominent among them, who have recommended a turn to “postcritique,” to a performative critical modesty. Rather, Nersessian builds, through sometimes esoteric readings of Wordsworth, Keats, Cowper, Blake, and others, a proudly strong theory, albeit a theory of figural phenomena that are themselves often quiet, diaphanous, resistant to full-throated conceptualization.
In a substantial introduction, Nersessian announces that “the world's contents are ontologically plural—that they have different, sometimes overlapping ways of being” (12). This contention then guides her method, one that takes close rhetorical reading seriously as a means to demonstrate what is specific about literature's claims upon the world. Resisted here is a tendency fairly now hegemonic in literary studies, namely to cherry pick the methods and imperatives of other disciplines—history or sociology, most commonly—and apply them to literary texts, such texts thus pacified under the impress of thoroughly external tools. But this leaves open the question of how Nersessian understands those ontologically distinct literary texts to work upon that ontologically various world—to refer, as we might once have said. This question becomes especially pressing when politics arises, as it does across the length of the book. Indeed, the very title, The Calamity Form, “plays on Marx's commodity form, the great prestidigitation by which capital disguises its logic” (15). And so while, in the name of an ontological pluralism, Nersessian's arguments resist the collapse of what is particular about literature into neutralizing appeals to externally sourced “contexts,” she still wishes to say something specific about the political resonances of Romantic poetry—without, for all that, assuming that the value of that verse must lie only in its contestatory potential.
If that sounds like a tricky needle to thread, it is. The argument that results rests on a not entirely argued-for historical claim. Extending her definition of the calamity form, Nersessian describes it as “both the Industrial Revolution [historically coterminous with canonical Romantic verse] and a poetics awkwardly responsive to or co-operative with it” (18). Because there can be no proper historical distance between the Industrial Revolution and the poetry considered here, that history can only be assimilated as a kind of formative unknowing, as blank spots (Wordsworthian pun intended), as figural or rhetorical barriers to ready reflection: “the book claims that the figurative, non-referential, and anti-denotative properties of aesthetic objects—here, poems—are long-standing, highly developed competencies well suited to a historical era in which the means by which life is reproduced becomes spectral” (22). The historical claim, which manages to be both strikingly bold and itself somewhat spectral, is, as I say, assumed rather than justified.
A related problem, one that the book never quite surmounts, is that, while a conventionally historicist causal account of the historical-political value of the poetry under discussion would be inappropriate, given the, to my mind, laudable refusal to reduce this poetry to a mere passive container of historical insights, some sustained theoretical account of the (no doubt unstable) relation between poetic figure and historico-political meaning is needed, especially given the book's performative insistence on its adjacency to historical materialism. Nersessian might respond that I am misrecognizing as a flaw (the lack of a rubric of causality) the very original claim of her book: her interest, after all, is in the inability of poetry of this moment (but only of this moment?) to confront and then cognize the cause of the accumulating misery that surrounds it. But this merely shunts the problem to a higher level of epistemological insufficiency; Nersessian is, after all, making causal claims about this poetry that has, she says, problems with making causal claims.
I will focus in the remainder on Nersessian's chapters on Wordsworth and Keats. Other chapters, impressive indeed, concern parataxis in Cowper and Hölderlin, and the cloud as apostrophic object of address. The Wordsworth that emerges in Nersessian's reading is defined by his obscurity. Nersessian wishes “to consider how the frontedness of Wordsworth's poems—their austere articulation of themselves as manifest, as simply there—is built on their obscurity” (167). “Frontedness” is very good—that which merely, yet also defiantly, persists is an undernoticed constant in the verse early and late, with nature and poetic language coming to allegorize the stubbornness of each.
And yet, what results for Nersessian, for all the interleaved opacities addressed, is unadorned in its directness: this is a poetry of capitalist crisis, albeit a crisis unable to be thought directly by Wordsworth. And thus, for all that this “obscure” poetry “undernames” and “underdescribes,” it does so for reasons that are for the critic, apparently now unencumbered by the fog of obscurity, of a political certainty at sharp variance with the verse, indeed with many of the intricate readings that populate the chapters. Much of Nersessian's argumentation here strikes me as a sophisticated update of Theodor Adorno's “On Lyric Poetry and Society.” There, recall, Adorno (2019: 59–74) promotes the lyric as revelatory of capitalist modernity precisely insofar as it seems uninterested in picturing it, withdrawing instead to the personal, to individual reminiscence. Both Adorno and Nersessian come close to suggesting that the very absence of something from poetry makes it all the more important than what is actually visible on the page.
The book's best chapter is devoted to Keats and catechresis. For Nersessian, “what has been taken for an over-the-top emphasis [in Keats] on the pageant of the physical body is in truth a highly pressurized blankness, an attempt to evacuate that body and thereby protect it from expropriation” (250). This is not to deny the sensuality of the verse, but to notice how that sensuality is “present only in an aftermath, as the pulse of something almost gone” (309). This is both close to, and provocatively estranged from, our usual ways of thinking about reminiscence and retrospect as Romantic temporal modes.
Where such modes are usually voiced in something like the temporal present, Keats’ after-pulse (Nersessian's critical-descriptive language here, as throughout, is exquisite) eludes such definitive positioning. In Nersessian's reading, Keatsian catechresis becomes a kind of poetic stutter-step, one that aids in the construction of a poetics “capable of registering the human essence of nature and the natural essence of man as an abandonment or emptying-out, not just of the ego . . . but of the body itself as a target for expropriative activity” (309). This is an elegant way of rendering forcefully what is somehow both elusive and insistent in Keats's figuration of the corporeal, and yet the suspiciously definitive political conclusion—that such an evasiveness is a means of absenting the body from its expropriation by exploitative labor—is, once again, never quite argued for in the readings that compose the chapter. Catechresis, by the by, loses its rhetorical specificity by chapter's end—one suspects other figures might have equally done the trick—although one enjoys the fashion in which Nersessian permits rhetorical terms to bloom beyond narrow technical limits.
Finally, it seems obvious that the broader turn to recession, blankness, nonmimesis, and the like in recent Romantic criticism, and the difficulty that this otherwise very fine book has in making good on its historical, political claims, are meaningfully linked. By eschewing the contextualist consensus in literary studies, books such as Nersessian's promote a return to close, rhetorical reading, in order to locate indeterminate verbal features invisible to overly pat historicist narratives. Nonetheless, and quite understandably, the ambition to make bold historical and political claims remains, is even perhaps amplified, once such older struts and supports have given way. One might go as far as to say that the emphasis, on the level of these superlative close readings, on the recessive, on what Nersessian winningly terms “an evanescence in your face” (303), comes ultimately, at a higher critical vantage, to allegorize a missing rubric of causation or of reference, one that might surpass the limits of historicisms past while tying the most specific figural detail to the political claims made certainly compulsively, if not automatically, in this criticism. But what a boon: in this book, we read truly experimental literary theory gathering its resources, for one—final?—push.